Music Genres and Their Contexts

The context of music

It is self evident that every kind of music was created in some specific context of culture, technology, demand etc. And it is very fun and interesting to learn those details about music from the past. It is also useful to observe how the details change in the present and affect the music being created.

At the same time, the evolution of the technology has radically altered our access to historical and contemporaneous music. In other words, Spotify and co. are an amazing, universal blender of hundreds of years of human music (and in turn they become another peculiar factor to affect the production of new music…)

Some quick examples of what I am thinking about:

  • Bach wrote music with the acoustics and rituals of particular churches in mind.
  • Mozart wrote pieces for particular Viennese orchestras and audiences.
  • Jazz was the sound of nightclubs in a rapidly urbanising America.
  • The smooth crooning of Frank Sinatra was only possible with the development of electric microphones.
  • The heavy sound of Led Zeppelin required the evolution of high wattage amplifiers, multitrack recording etc.
  • Arena rock is the result of rock concerts moving to bigger and bigger venues.
  • The proliferation of cheap electronic synthesisers made it easier for kids start synth pop bands.
  • Hair metal is a byproduct of the MTV influence.
  • A lot of pop rock music in the 80s was custom made to sound good on FM radio and play on popular formats (Adult Contemporary etc.).
  • Albums became a different beast once LPs (40 minutes, two sides, hard to skip a track) were supplanted by CDs (70+ minutes, one side, easy to skip and shuffle).
  • Sampling technology changed everything for a while…
  • Techno music is a kind of music and a particular kind of place where it is played.
  • Etc.

One intriguing question is what happens “now”: CDs are no longer a factor, nor MTV, nor churches, nor FM. Instead, the main distribution channel is streaming, and we can outline some of its aspects:

  • Thousands of new songs show up every day
  • And face direct competition with several other million
  • Listening becomes very individualised
  • Playlists become a major influence.
  • No marginal spending to listen as much you want.
  • Everything is one click away.
  • The entire experience is controlled top-to-down by the company owner of each streaming service (one exception is Soundcloud, which is designed a bit more bottom-up). 

Some reported consequences, from the top of my mind:

  • Choruses and hooks are moved to beginning of the song to grab the listener interest
  • Songs get shorter to maximize streaming revenues
  • Every song gets an acoustic version to gather more plays, enter more playlists
  • Music usually quieter to sound better on headphones

All this is to say I wonder how the current period is going to be remembered some twenty years into the future: “Spotify Music” will become just another genre mocked by teenagers whom haven’t been born yet?

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